Photo: Unfold Stories / James Lovage

A Tapestry of Credentials: How Self-Sovereign Identity Can Unlock Property Rights for Billions

Yulia Panfil (senior fellow and director) and Christopher Mellon (policy analyst), with the Future of Property Rights program at New America, explore how self-sovereign identity systems can help create "tapestry credentials" to gain property rights

Every person in the world has a human right to own, rent, or otherwise occupy property. And yet, based on a 33-country survey conducted by the Global Property Rights Index, an estimated 43% of the world’s population lacks property documents. In Africa, for example, 90% of land is undocumented.

Why is that?

Because the pieces of evidence that administrative agencies require in order to issue property documents – things like a survey plan, a notarized will, or a state-issued identity card – are unattainable for many. In Uganda, for example, where a survey plan is a prerequisite for obtaining a land title, there are fewer than 100 official land surveyors and over 15 million distinct land parcels. It would take those surveyors more than 1,000 years to map and register every informal parcel in the country.

Obstacles of that kind prevent billions of people from getting the property documents they need to apply for loans, solve land disputes, and pass their assets on to their children.

But traditional credentials like survey plans and notarized forms are far from the only evidence of property rights. In fact, property rights are evidenced by a multitude of small, everyday events: where people sleep at night, where their mail is delivered, their relationships with their neighbors, the fact that they pay to maintain and improve their properties.

Until recently these everyday events occurred, unrecorded, in the analog world, beyond the sight of administrative agencies that provide us with property documents. But with the proliferation of smartphones, satellites, and social media platforms, more and more of these small events leave a data trail. What if we found a way to harness this digital evidence, and use it to supplement the small number of credentials currently accepted by administrative agencies?

We believe that an emerging digital identity system – specifically, self-sovereign identity (SSI) – is the vehicle for harnessing this wealth of new data in a way that is trustworthy, secure, and privacy preserving. SSI provides the tools to join disparate pieces of evidence into a tapestry of cryptographically secure credentials that citizens can use to prove things about themselves, and access services they had previously been locked out of.

Today we are releasing a report examining the property rights credential problem, ways in which our increasingly interconnected world is generating new kinds of evidence, and how SSI can help turn that evidence into “tapestry credentials.” While the report focuses on property rights, the same principles can be applied to a multitude of applications, from credit scores to farm subsidies to educational qualifications. For example, the World Food Program has been providing blockchain-based IDs to Syrian refugees in Jordan, allowing them to receive food vouchers directly to their digital wallets, spend the vouchers using an iris scan, and keep a record of their expenditures as a form of credit history. This identity can be enriched with educational credentials, attestations from the UN and the Jordanian government, and other credentials needed to access services wherever they end up living.

The success of tapestry credentials is predicated upon the existence of an ecosystem of players who are willing to collect, issue, and accept these credentials.

Third parties that collect data about us – like Google, Facebook and MPesa – must be willing to issue verifiable credentials that citizens can use for their own purposes. We also must invest in developing public infrastructure for registering and looking up identifiers, like a Domain Name System for identities. The Decentralized Identity Foundation and the Sovrin Foundation have been leaders in these efforts. In addition to that public infrastructure, individual users need apps that allow them to store and share their identity information.

The system also depends upon the willingness of administrative agencies to amend their documentation standards to accept new forms of evidence. And finally, people must believe that collecting, organizing, and storing tapestry credentials is a useful and safe exercise for unlocking services.

What we are describing is ambitious. It depends on a paradigmatic shift in the way that administrative agencies look at property rights. And yet, it feels inevitable. The GSMA projects that by 2025 there will be 6 billion unique mobile subscribers, with smartphones accounting for 77% of mobile connections. If successful, the launch of global broadband internet schemes from OneWeb, Amazon, and SpaceX will likely further increase smartphone penetration over the coming decade. In recent years, industries from finance to education to health care have begun exploring new ways to allow people to assert facts about themselves and reap the rights they are entitled to, but have not been able to access.

Even in the property rights space, there are already hints of willingness to expand the types of evidence people can use to prove their occupancy. For example, the Pinheiro Principles, which govern property restitution for refugees, allow refugees to use a wide array of data to prove their property claims. As another example, after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency began accepting sworn affidavits of property ownership, in lieu of title documents, to process aid for Puerto Ricans.

As the world moves online, we increasingly focus on the threat of our digital trails being used against us; the specter of privacy invasion, surveillance and identity theft is everywhere. But let’s not forget that this abundance of new data can be used for good. If people everywhere learn to take control of their information trails, they can deploy them towards transparency and access, particularly for the most vulnerable.